What to do when your priorities aren’t the same as your boss’s

This might seem like a weird post. Why on earth would your priorities be out of kilter with your boss’s? Surely they should all link to your organisation’s priorities, right? And the department you work in, that your boss is the head honcho of? Surely your priorities fit with those, right?

But what if you have a boss who gets excited by new things all the time? Even when there is a clear set of priorities for the year, for you and your colleagues, your boss constantly finds new things to add to that plan. You’re focused on doing a great job with the priorities that were agreed and now it feels like your boss is constantly changing the rules of the game.

This is an issue that comes up with many of my coaching clients. These are people in pretty senior positions. They might be a head of service in a large local authority, or a director in a global blue chip company. Their respective boss’s are even more senior and hence, have a greater degree of power. This can mean that saying no can feel like a tough thing to do, no matter how senior they are.

If you regularly find yourself in a situation where you start the year with real clarity of what your’s and your team’s priorities are but your boss keeps adding new, ‘exciting’ things to that list, then this post is for you.

Here are three tips to get you and your boss more aligned:

1) Get it all down on paper

A tactic I’ve suggested to some clients is to sit down with their boss and with a piece of paper in front of both of them, draw a venn diagram. One of the circles is your priorities; one of the circles is your boss’s priorities. Where the circles overlap is where your priorities are the same. The ideal is that the bulk of writing is in the overlap. The managers who’ve used this tactic have found that it created breakthrough moments and realisations for both them and their bosses when the bulk of the writing is on either side of the overlap.

The beauty of this simple activity is that drawing and writing on the paper focuses it away from the person, and thereby stops it feeling like a personal attack, and instead focuses on the problem.

This can be a useful exercise to do at regular intervals, say every few months, to make sure you’re both aligned and also check if any original priorities have now been de-prioritised.

2) Negotiate rather than say “no”

Not many of us like to be told ‘no’ when we’ve asked for something. Most of my readers, like you, are in management positions. How do you feel when you ask a member of your team to do it and they say ‘no’, or variations of? It’s annoying isn’t it?

Imagine your boss lands another unexpected priority on you. For example, it might be a new project where you have to put in a last minute bid for some funding but you’ve got other deadlines on the other important priorities you’ve been set. In that instance, why not say “I can pull together this last minute bid but what that will mean is that the other key project I’m working on will have to be put off until next week. This is because I was actually going to spend the next two days finishing that off. Would you like me to put that off and focus on this instead?”

It’s important you prepare for that discussion, rather than attempt to do it off-the-cuff. You want to have the right impact from the moment you start the discussion. A 2007 study by Alex Pentland and Jared Curhan found that the first five minutes of an interaction strongly predicted the outcomes of the negotiations. 

This tactic might feel more difficult for some than others.

For example, Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take: Why helping others drives our success, says “…one of the main reasons that women tend to negotiate less assertively than men is that they worry about violating social expectations that they’ll be warm and kind.” But the question is, what’s the price of not pushing back? And are you prepared to pay that price? For example, working longer hours or over weekends which might take you away from family time?

3) Avoid trying to do it all

The Zeigarnik Effect, developed by Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s, is where incomplete or interrupted tasks weight on our mind much more than a completed task. By negotiating a hold on a priority (or two) to focus on the new thing, means you’re more likely to give your mind permission to focus on the new task at hand, rather than worrying about the other things.

A 2006 study led by Rene Marois showed that multi-tasking, where people worked on two tasks simultaneously, took up to 30 per cent longer and made twice as many errors as those who did the tasks one at a time.

By avoiding the discussion with your boss, and trying to do it all, means you’re less likely to do the great job you want to do on the many things you’re being asked to do. This has the danger of impacting your effectiveness and in extreme circumstances, your career.  According to Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to manage childish boss behavior and thrive in your job, most bosses are just going to give you more and more to do until you say “stop” or inform them of the work that will be impacted if you take on this new, unexpected thing.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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